Setting chemistry's image to rights
The joy of chemistry: the amazing science of familiar things
Cathy Cobb and Monty Fetterolf
Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books | 2005 | 393pp | £14.50 (HB) | ISBN 1591022312
Reviewed by Dennis Rouvray
There was a time, now regrettably long since past, when chemistry appeared so fresh and exciting that lay audiences took great delight in witnessing the performance of chemical experiments and in hearing about the latest developments in chemical research. The fascination with chemistry was especially strong in the upper echelons of society and even extended to royalty. Prince Albert, the consort of Queen Victoria, for instance, regularly attended lectures and demonstrations held at the Royal Institution in London.
But, since Edwardian times, interest in chemistry as an intellectually challenging field of endeavour has steadily waned. This has been notably evidenced in recent years by the ever declining number of students coming forward to study chemistry and the closure of several chemistry departments in British universities. The bottom line is that the discipline of chemistry is no longer an inspiration to the great majority of the populace. In fact, all too often chemistry is viewed as a rather noxious pursuit that is complicit in the contamination of much of our planet.
According to the chemists Cathy Cobb and Monty Fetterolf, however, all is not lost. They are convinced that it is still possible to reconnect with the doubting masses and have written a book to prove it. The time is now ripe, they claim, to spread the word that chemistry is a heart-warming subject able to captivate all and sundry with 'the fascination of fall foliage and fireworks, the functioning of smoke detectors and computers, to the fundamentals of digestion and combustion'.
Their work uses as models Marion Rombauer's 1931 The joy of cooking and Alex Comfort's 1972 The joy of sex. The book is divided into 28 chapters, each of which offers an explanation of some aspect of chemistry and an accompanying simple experiment designed to reinforce the text. A six-page shopping list is included to facilitate the purchase of all the required chemicals and equipment, although some of these may be difficult to track down for British readers because the book is written with an American audience in mind.
The chemistry presented is generally satisfactory, but I found several errors, eg that Mendeleev was born in Serbia (actually in Tobolsk in Siberia) and educated in Moscow (actually St Petersburg). I somehow doubt that this will be the book that succeeds in transforming our image of chemistry, although the authors have taken an important step in the right direction.